The Ohio River’s banks rival any ancient archaeological site for clues about human beings. The trash in the river is as varied as the people who live near it, and the things we buy and use every day. One wooded stretch yields garbage from what appears to be a tribe of one-footed, soft-drink-chugging lovers of plastic toys. In another spot, perhaps on the opposite side of the river, lies evidence of engine-oil-addicted office furniture suppliers. Just a few hundred yards away, it’s as if yet another group of people settled, this time one-footed, beer-guzzling refrigerator collectors.
On Louisville’s stretch of the Ohio, these aren’t primitive clues. The trash tells the story of the last few decades, along with the last few weeks. And they are ever-present reminders of the mission that Living Lands & Waters has undertaken: cleaning up America’s rivers.
The group spends 10 months a year living on a barge as they move from city to city, picking up trash and trying to educate the communities they serve so they don’t have to return. They haven’t reached that goal yet in Louisville, which is why they’ve just spent another month here for the second year in a row.
On one of the first days of the 2007 season, the first week of March, I stood on the Indiana side of the Ohio River with Chad Pregracke, LL&W’s president and founder. The 32-year-old has worked and played in large rivers since he was a boy, including employment as a mussel diver on the Mississippi River as a teen in his hometown of Moline, Ill. He eventually got fed up with the trash he encountered wherever he went on the river. When he was 17, Chad began collecting the garbage all by himself, piling it in his parents’ yard.
Taking a cue from racecar drivers, Chad realized sponsorship was a viable way to fund his cleanup efforts, and he founded the nonprofit 10 years ago. In 2000 he obtained a barge, and today he and his employees, a crew of eight men and women, organize cleanups and teach river education workshops in cities from Washington, D.C., to Burlington, Iowa. He works right alongside the crew, dashing off occasionally for speaking engagements. National Geographic just published a book about Chad, due out in April.
“Why do you guys spend so long in Louisville?” I asked Chad, pausing in the middle of a crew-only cleanup for yet another drink of water. I’d been hauling and rolling putrid tires for an hour.
“Why?” he paused. “Just …” He looked from side to side with his arms raised, inviting me to survey the completely trashed riverbank where we stood. Then he said, “I don’t know if I have to say anything.”
That is the only time during my three days with LL&W that I saw Chad speechless. It’s a meaningful silence, coming from somebody who has been intimately involved with rivers for more than a decade. He said that, frankly, somebody’s got to clean it, so they’re cleaning it.
The rest of the crew is also matter-of-fact about the enormous task before them.
“I try to distance myself from the schedule as much as I can so I don’t get overwhelmed,” Chris Fenderson, 30, said when I started asking about all the cities they’ll clean this year. “Whatever’s happening tomorrow, let me know tonight.”
Tomorrow for LL&W is almost always different from today. Often it’s a game of logistics. They spend as much time moving people, equipment and trash as they do anything else, and conversation often morphs into a planning session: Who should stay, who should go? How will we get the boat into that spot? When can we get the water running on the barge? How long will it take to get to the next town? How should we reorganize this trash so it doesn’t blow off when we drive it through town? Where should we park the trash while we grab some lunch?
Most of them say the months away from home — away from fiancés, parents and friends — can be difficult. Geoff Manis, 28, who’s been on the crew since 2004, is now interviewing for jobs in his hometown of Moline.
“If I were to pick a number one reason why I’m done working for this organization at the end of the month,” he said, “that would be it.”
Then again, he said travel is also one of the best parts. “We have friends all over the country — a 14-state area — that come out to clean up whenever we’re in town.”
Over the years, they have found anything money can buy in our country’s rivers, including prosthetic limbs and blow-up dolls. Nearly everyone said picking up trash is the fun part. If that’s true, they must have a ball in Metro Louisville.
Clearly, Louisvillians are not solely to blame for all the trash that LL&W will have spent a month cleaning. Much of it originates upriver, especially from communities with lax dumping laws. Often, cities simply lack the proper resources to deal with their waste. Even when responsible people dispose of garbage properly, there’s still a chance it can end up in a river or stream because of inadequate storm water drainage systems.
“As far as garbage goes, (the Ohio) is pretty much the worst,” crew member Tammy Becker, 30, said. “The only thing that really compares to the Ohio is the Anacostia in Washington, D.C. But they’ve got a more concentrated population and the garbage is different, potato chip bags and things like that. Here, you see more dumping.”
Litter is just the most obvious pollution in the Ohio, not to mention raw sewage that’s currently keeping our local section from meeting federal quality standards.
“If we compared water quality, what it is a now and what is was in 1940s, then we’re light years ahead, it’s improved dramatically,” said Russell Barnett, director of the Kentucky Institute for Environment and Sustainable Development at U of L. I spoke with him after I left the barge. “If you’re talking about shorter periods of time, we’re pretty much maintaining the status quo, perhaps decreasing water quality.”
Like a lot of old river cities, Louisville has a combined sewer system. Brian Bingham, regulatory management services director at Metropolitan Sewer District, said the system lets as much as 4 billion gallons of untreated sewage overflow into the river annually. MSD is now working under a consent decree, essentially a state and federal mandate to improve the situation. MSD said it is addressing the problem with various enhancements and changes that have reduced overflow by at least 600,000 gallons since last April.
Other pollution is not so easily attributed to a single outlet. Non-point source pollution, as it’s called, includes lawn chemicals, agricultural pesticides and various liquids from leaky vehicles.
LL&W has the advantage of working on a part of the problem where results are instantly visible. They focus on picking up trash and replanting vegetation — restoring the river to its natural state. Many crewmembers have a background in some sort of environmental science, so they are familiar with these issues. They could be in a lab working on them, but most seem averse to desk jobs.
“You’re guaranteed to be outside all the time,” crewmember Kristen Ellis, 27, said. “That’s what I like about (this job), even if it’s cold.”
That is a good thing, because this stint in Louisville began with freezing weather. On my second day, water turned to ice when it hit our backs and arms as we zoomed upriver in a metal plate boat built, and now piloted, by Chris. The boat tore through waves, catching air and banging along like a stone skipped across a parking lot. Nobody spoke above the clamor of the wind and the roaring engine.
The climate can be inhospitable, whether it is late-winter cold or the summer heat that turns the metal barges into burn risks. But no one seems to dwell on weather. Kristen and another crewmember, Jenn Branstetter, 27, spent part of their winter break clearing invasive plants from Beargrass Creek, finishing just short of the point where it empties into the Ohio.
MSD has helped subsidize LL&W’s cleanup here, providing $50,000, part of more than $1.5 million MSD must spend on various programs as part of the consent decree. It’s one of several grants that keep the growing nonprofit organization afloat each year. Barge companies provide about half of its annual operating budget of $700,000 to $800,000. Large sponsors include Marquette, Cargill and Anheuser-Busch.
The Louisville community has also been individually generous with little things, such as helping the crew navigate the city. LL&W sometimes gathers volunteers at Captain’s Quarters restaurant for community cleanups. Owner Andrew Masterson offered to feed the crew and 50 volunteers with a free dinner when he heard college students would arrive within hours to work with LL&W.
This year, LL&W is focusing on the area near the Falls of the Ohio because it’s heavily used. There lies plenty of trash, but also the opportunity to show the impact of a simple cleanup. Chad said a big part of the group’s mission is “show, don’t tell,” and there’s no denying a problem when 12-foot tall piles of it fill up a 150-foot barge. With about 62 cleanups that yield seven bargeloads of trash every year, the group can make a powerful statement without saying a word.
Still, they have much to say. An LL&W education workshop is a crash course in all that’s interesting about the Ohio, and provides ways for teachers to share that with their students. The free events last most of the day, giving schoolteachers and non-traditional educators ideas about how river education can be integrated into the curriculum, not just science class.
Lisa Holt, a special needs teacher at Moore Middle School, said she sees great potential for using the LL&W model with her students.
“I would love to see them in a classroom like this. It’d be a good, different environment for special needs kids. I can see a lot of practical applications.”
Holt said a barge full of trash would give her kids a concrete image to go with the idea of environmental stewardship. “Even if they can’t do more complicated things, they understand picking up trash.”
Workshop presenters, whether from the Army Corps of Engineers, or the Filson Historical Society, direct teachers to additional resources like Web sites or videos that are often free of charge. They’re obviously excited to share their expertise, and Tammy said Louisville’s experts have been especially eager to offer their time. She neglects to mention her own enthusiasm, however. After a half hour of watching her talk about mussels — seemingly dormant, hardly exotic harbingers of river health — I was convinced they are some of the most fascinating creatures on earth. Kristen also gives a surprising presentation about the useful “weeds” that grow along the river.
It seems nearly everyone has a specialty. Chad is probably the best kind of boss, one who knows when to defer to one of the smart people he’s hired. And the crewmembers are like a dream team, working hard even when nobody’s looking, having a good time in the process. After just a few days working with the crew, I was tired and sore, ready to feel warm and clean again. Still, I couldn’t help thinking about all the garbage I’d seen, and when I could come back and dig in some more.